There may be no such thing as a moral victory, but the CSU volleyball team can take something from this weekend’s losses to open conference play. They now knows they can play with just about anyone.
The next step is to beat them.
Following a Friday night debacle on the road against 21-ranked Utah that saw the team get swept aside in three games, the Rams went for five games at 19-ranked BYU. The Cougars prevailed in a thriller: 28-30, 30-28, 30-27, 23-30, 15-11.
Although the victory belonged to the Cougars, the players (5-6, 0-2) felt they achieved a lot in front of 2,406 BYU fans.
“Tonight showed us that we can play with anyone,” said senior outside hitter Katherine Whitney, who tied a season-high with 21 kills in the loss. “We played so much better than we did last night.”
The Rams got off to a fast start in front of a noisy crowd, winning the first game 30-28 after trailing 28-26. BYU (10-1, 2-0) responded by winning the following two games, although CSU kept it close until the end of each.
In the fourth game, the Rams secured the most comfortable game win of the night, breaking away late in the game to win it 30-23. The decisive game five went to the home team, as the Cougars hit .438 against CSU’s .179 hitting percentage.
Whitney said the difference in each of the five games was simply who got hot at the right time.
“I think the difference was the point runs,” she said. “We gave up some long runs that hurt us. Statistically, we won those games.”
Whitney was right. The Rams won the kills battle in every game but the fourth – the easiest-won game. Its hitting percentage was better than the Cougars in three of the five games. In the end, however, BYU was able to build off the crowd and find momentum at the right time.
Rams Head Coach Tom Hilbert said BYU is always a tough place to play.
“BYU has always had a great program,” he said. “It’s fun to come here and play. It’s always tough, but we generally play well here.”
Junior right side hitter Tonya Mokelki, who set a career high with 21 kills, liked having the crowd going against her team.
“I’m that kind of a player that feeds off of the crowd, even if they’re cheering against me,” she said. “It was exciting out there.”
Mokelki’s big night was a huge part of the Rams keeping the most talented team in the Mountain West from pulling away. Hilbert said they like to see that kind of play consistently.
“Tonya was big tonight,” he said. “We need her to be that way every night. She’s somebody who should get that many swings at the ball every match.”
Unfortunately for the Rams, Friday night’s match-up against Utah was not as productive. Though the team kept the first game close, the Rams were unable to hold on against an impressive Utes squad, losing 30-26, 30-21, 30-24.
Utah (9-2, 2-0) was even more separated from the Rams on the stat sheet than on the scoreboard. The Utes had 48 kills to CSU’s 40, and held the Rams to a .064 hitting percentage. This was the sixth time in Utah’s last seven matches that it has held an opponent below the .100 mark.
Hilbert credited the Utes’ play, but said he expected more from his team.
“They are a very physical team,” he said. “They keep coming at you. We just have to be able to side out. Our outside hitters have to handle their physicality.”
But the silver lining of Friday’s match is the way the Rams turned it around Saturday. Whitney said it was a much calmer team on Saturday than Friday.
“I think after we lost last night we just knew we had to come out and play better,” she said. “Tonight we were all on the same page.”
CSU needs to remain on the same page. Now that it has dropped below .500 on the season and gotten off to a 0-2 start in conference play, the team will need to respond in a big way this weekend. The Rams face New Mexico on Friday and TCU on Saturday at Moby Arena.
For a weekend that saw no wins, the Rams have a lot of positives to take into the next match. Whitney said what was learned about the team this weekend is a great building block for the rest of the year.
“I think we grew a lot as a team,” she said. “We have to play at this level all of the time.”
Staff writer Jeff Dillon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.